As it turns out, Kia is quite serious about taking on Audi and BMW with its 365-horsepower five-door GT.
Chris PaukertFormer executive editor / Cars
Following stints in TV news production and as a record company publicist, Chris spent most of his career in automotive publishing. Mentored by Automobile Magazine founder David E. Davis Jr., Paukert succeeded Davis as editor-in-chief of Winding Road, a pioneering e-mag, before serving as Autoblog's executive editor from 2008 to 2015.
Chris is a Webby and Telly award-winning video producer and has served on the jury of the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards. He joined the CNET team in 2015, bringing a small cache of odd, underappreciated cars with him.
Every once in a while, a car company will invite automotive journalists to try out competitors' wares when introducing the media to their latest vehicle. It doesn't happen terribly often, but it's invariably a good sign that a company is genuinely bullish about their new baby. Most of the time, an automaker trots out two or three key competitors for back-to-back drives.
Not just any seven cars, mind — it wheeled out a pair of Audis, two BMWs, an Infiniti, a Lexus and a Porsche.
Kia is nothing if not ambitious.
Remember, this is the same automaker that invited Roadshow reviews editor Jon Wong to sample an early Stinger GT prototype at Germany's famed Nurburgring, likely the single most demanding racetrack on Earth. That was back in June, and Wong came back grinning. Since that time, Kia has been fine-tuning the midsize five-door for US tastes, getting it ready for its planned stateside launch in December.
Of course, it's only fair to point out that this is also the same automaker that has never sold a rear-wheel-drive performance car and the same automaker whose only foray upmarket in America, the K900 sedan, has been met by consumers with deafening silence.
Something's got to give, and after taking the Stinger around Greater Los Angeles' legendary canyon roads, flinging it 'round an oval and road course and autocrossing it back-to-back against Teams Deutschland and Japan, I have a passel of reasons to suggest it shouldn't be the Kia.
For those who need a quick refresher course, the 2018 Kia Stinger is a rear- or all-wheel drive five-door hatchback available with either a turbocharged four- or six-cylinder engine backed by an eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters. The former is a 2.0-liter unit with a twin-scroll turbo, good for 255 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 260 pound-feet of torque from 1,400 rpm. The latter is a 3.3-liter twin-turbo affair that whips up 365 hp and 376 pound-feet from 1,350 rpm, and its headline numbers are a 0-60 mph time of 4.7 seconds and a governed top speed of 167 mph. Predictably, the majority of my Southern California drive day is spent in the larger-engined GT variant, with Kia giving us journos plenty of opportunities to split time between RWD and AWD models.
With that kind of hardware available under the hood, it's no surprise that chief design officer Peter Schreyer instructed his team to build a confident-looking machine. Kia's broad "Tiger Nose" tabbed grille is surrounded here by glowering headlamps and a sharp-edged bumper with big, gaping air intakes. From the side, the Stinger's profile has real legs — it stretches out over a long wheelbase and terminates in a hunkered-down fastback shape that features full-band taillights and quad exhaust tips.
There's no doubt the Stinger is a formidable-looking machine, especially in GT guise, with its attractive 19-inch smoke-finish Y-spoke wheels. Its overall proportions and stance are really nicely done. Unfortunately, a couple of minor details ring hollow to me, and they really hurt the overall efficacy of the design. For a model that genuinely possesses high-performance chops, it's mystifying that a superstar designer like Schreyer would allow fraudulent affectations like faux hood vents (they're even highlighted in contrasting paint!).
The same is true of the fender air extractors at the leading edge of the front doors — they're functional, mercifully, but they're similarly bizarrely finished in look-at-me brightwork. To my eyes, forced touches like these make for sad costume jewelry on a handsome shape that doesn't need the help. (Something tells me that when it came time to present the Stinger for sign-off in Seoul, Schreyer had to make a few design concessions to the board, and fussy details like this are what resulted.)
Those quibbles aside, the Stinger's shape does suggest both genuine performance and capacious accommodations. As mentioned earlier, it rides atop a particularly long wheelbase — 114.4 inches — a number that yields strong legroom front and rear, as well as generous cargo space — 23.3 cubic feet with the rear seats up and 40.9 with them down.
That wheelbase combines forces with a nicely tuned front MacPherson strut and rear multilink suspension to produce remarkably good ride quality, an attribute not to be taken for granted when the GT rides atop staggered low-profile Michelin Pilot Sport 4 summer rubber (225/40 up front, 255/35 in the rear). Importantly, that long wheelbase also seemingly doesn't inhibit the Stinger's willingness to change direction. Lengthy spans between a vehicle's front and rear wheels can hurt agility by curbing the chassis' eagerness to change direction, but thanks to careful tuning led by former BMW M boss Albert Biermann, the Stinger feels nimble for such a big car (even if it is ultimately tuned for safety-first understeer).
2018 Kia Stinger is a bona fide high-performance grand tourer
As evidenced by the photo above, there's a fair bit of body roll when the car is really pitched hard into a corner, but the Stinger never feels unsettled, and the rear-wheel drive model, with its available limited-slip differential, feels particularly playful. Even the all-wheel-drive model handles sharply — it defaults to a rear-biased torque distribution, and in Sport mode, up to 80 percent of the engine's available torque can be funneled to the rear wheels. Models I drove on the track and cone course were equipped with Kia's optional Dynamic Stability Damping Control — electronically-actuated shocks with the driver's choice of five modes: Smart (auto), Custom, Eco, Sport and Comfort. Conventional gas dampers are standard.
Out on a cone course at Kia's Mojave proving grounds, the GT's standard variable-ratio electric power steering proved its worth, requiring a lot less sawing back and forth at the wheel than cars like BMW's 6 Series Gran Coupe, and even less than Audi's A7 Sportback. I tested both RWD and AWD Stinger GTs back-to-back against those cars, along with an Audi S5 Sportback, base Porsche Panamera and Infiniti Q50, and the Kia more than held its own despite what promises to be a much lower price tag. The Stinger's steering also didn't feel completely artificial and devoid of feel like some variable-rack systems can.
The signs were similarly encouraging during high-speed passes on a large banked oval, where runs at 130 mph proved utterly benign and unremarkable. At such speeds on manicured surfaces, the Stinger felt wholly at ease and unchallenged — appropriate, since Kia says the car is good for a further 38 mph.
When taking to the road course, the Stinger again inspired confidence, with friendly handling dynamics, resolute brakes and good power out of the corners. This clearly isn't a cutthroat track monster, it's a 4,000-pound street car, but that's not a demerit. After all, nobody really takes their Audi A7 or BMW 6 Series GC to the circuit, right? Either way, if Kia ever wants to come out with an even higher-performance model featuring significantly more horsepower and a starchier suspension, the chassis feels up to the job.
Dynamically, on both circuit and street, the Stinger also feels up to its ambitious remit of challenging far-costlier rivals from Germany and Japan. If it's let down anywhere in comparison, it's in the cabin. Don't get me wrong, it's a perfectly appropriate environment for a $30,000 to $50,000 vehicle — a nice one, in fact. But there are some things that clever engineering can't solve for, and that includes the cost of fitting fine wood veneers (there aren't any) and aromatic leather (even the Kia's optional higher-grade Nappa hides). In terms of material and switchgear quality, the Stinger is far from cheap, but it just isn't a match for something like an Audi A5 Sportback or Porsche Panamera.
Infotainment-wise, the cabin goes without complicated a multifunction controller like Audi's MMI, BMW's iDrive or Lexus' unspeakably bad Remote Touch, but even if Kia's latest UVO system is marginally less sophisticated, its 8-inch touchscreen (7-inch on 2.0T models) is significantly easier to use than those systems. It's compatible with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, plus there's an optional 15-speaker Harman Kardon surround sound system that features twin underseat subwoofers tuned for American ears (read: more bass).
In truth, however, I never made a point of listening to the stereo — I was too busy trying to coax the twin-turbo V6 into making entertaining noises. (Kia has tuned America's Stinger GT's exhaust to be throatier than its European and Korean counterparts, but to my ears, they could safely go louder still under big throttle openings.)
On the safety front, a slew of advanced drive assist systems are available, including pre-collision auto-brake with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control with stop and go for bumper-to-bumper traffic, lane-keep assist and blind-spot detection with rear cross-traffic alert. A driver attention monitor system is new for Kia, it emits a chime and a visual warning upon detecting a drowsy or distracted driver.
Despite offering up a septet of cars to compare it against, Kia officials are fond of saying that the Stinger's mix of high performance at a lower price means that it has no real rivals, no class that it readily fits into. On some level, that's true. Whereas vehicles in many segments of the market are all designed to fit within millimeters of each other in size and ability, the space in which this new Kia plays is somewhat more fluid. The V6-powered Stinger GT in particular offers a novel melange of attributes for the money that could see it sniping sales from several different classes.
Taken as a full range, however, the Stinger won't be without competitors, even if you ignore the seven stretch-target premium cars Kia lined up at the launch. Namely, Buick will shortly offer up its 2018 Regal GS and Volkswagen will deliver its new CC-replacing Arteon next year. Both are five-door liftbacks of similar size, both offer AWD and both offer power that will make them interesting cross-shops — especially versus the four-cylinder Stinger.
In other words, the Stinger may be deeply compelling, but its sales success is far from guaranteed. Even with a class-leading warranty and a hard-earned reputation for quality in recent years, Kia's dealers will need to ratchet up their game significantly to attract — and keep — luxury customers. Plus, more and more buyers are shunning cars of any form in favor of SUVs, and that's something Kia can't control.
Overall, the 2018 Kia Stinger is a tremendously satisfying package that lives up to its billing. Particularly in GT guise, it offers a beguiling mix of spirited performance, good ride quality and surprising utility. It's not just an impressive first effort for a sporty grand tourer from Kia, it's an impressive car, full stop. The Stinger may have a hard time cracking the shopping lists of Audi, BMW and Lexus intenders, but that doesn't mean luxury buyers wouldn't be wise to give it a chance.
Roadshow accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, the manufacturer covered travel costs. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.